Rwanda Diary: Hutu and Tutsi – what's in a name?

by Hannah Frantz

Before I came to Rwanda, I spent a week following The New Times, Rwanda’s online newspaper, to get a sense for where the country is today. The impression that I reached was that in the 17 years since the genocide, all conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi had been resolved and that everyone was making a collaborative effort to move towards peaceful relations. In my mind, Rwanda was this utopia where, through collaborative efforts, everyone could live in harmony. I’m realizing slowly that this isn’t necessarily the case.

Since the genocide, Rwandans have ceased to use the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” unless they’re referencing “The Genocide Against the Tutsi,” the strict title of the genocide (as deemed by the government). Some people really support this movement because it reduces the labels that one can place on others, labels that actually contributed to the genocide itself. However, I have a few problems with this policy.

I get really frustrated in America when we shy away from calling someone “black” in describing people or in conversation. When I hear someone referred to as “black” it’s usually framed in a context that treats the term as though it’s pejorative. It’s as if it’s offensive the mention the color of someone’s skin. My white friends seem to feel this way because they’re pointing out something “different” about someone. I’ve always thought it’s ridiculous that we can’t even use words relating to race. Most people are so worried about being offended they they avoid discussion of race altogether. But how can you have a reasonable discussion about race relations if you can’t even use the words? It’s like when someone says “I don’t see the color of people’s skin.” Of course they do. It’s the first thing they see. And by not acknowledging it, you fail to acknowledge what makes people uniquely themselves.

I promise this relates to Rwanda….

In my mind it’s very much the same principle. How can Rwanda move past the tragedy of 1994 if you can’t even say the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi”? How can you have a meaningful dialogue without them? I understand the movement toward accepting that Rwandans are Rwandans and nothing else, but if you can’t say the words, aren’t you building a fence around a central part of the discussion?

I was talking to one of my host siblings the other day about the implications of people calling me a “muzungu” and I was trying to explain to him why I don’t necessarily take offense to it. He said it’s the only time in Rwanda that it is acceptable to label someone by appearance because you can’t do that with Hutu and Tutsi. His exact words were, “You can’t call someone a Hutu because they are a human. You can’t call a human any other names.”

Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% not saying that we should fixate on potentially divisive markers like race. I’m only saying that we need to have a dialogue to acknowledge the tensions and issues that still exist (and they do still exist). To do so, we need to use the words. How else do we resist repeating history?

10 replies »

  1. Hi Hanna, I’m glad to see you’re making an attempt to better understand Rwandan culture but I think there are some things you may be misunderstanding. And you are not alone as many rwandans misunderstand some policies set up by the gov’t.

    Firstly, I would recommend your research for information in the future go beyond the New Times since they are not the sole providers of info on Rwanda. Secondly to comment on your understanding of the words “tutsi” and “hutu” you need to know that they are not banned completely. Those words are frowned upon if one is to use them in a context that pits themselves against another, as if they are better. This means the “hutu” or “tutsi” designation is no longer on national IDs so as to ensure that there will never again be the risk of dividing the population and giving sections of the population based on these so called “ethnic” identifiers. So the labels have been removed from official documentation to ensure equality among the people. Unfortunately not all rwandans still understand this simple differences as it was engrained in their politics for several decades. So as a result they now think it is illegal or taboo to speak of the words hutu or tutsi.

    Lastly, I want to point out to you that “tutsi” and “hutu” are not races. While you are in Rwanda I encourage you to seek our literature on the history of rwanda and read up. You will quickly notice that hutu and tutsi were more like social classes with both upward and downward social mobility.

  2. Dear Hannah!

    Thank your effort to understand Rwanda and Rwandaans. I invite you yo make deep analysis. Are hutu and tutsi races? Do we have a culture for hutu and tutsi? Do we have a land for tutsi and for hutu? Do we have a language for tutsi or hutu? Compare to communities like Kikuyu and Masayi in Kenya, you will see a reel difference.
    The copy paste of colonialist made Rwandans to be divided while hutu and tutso were more like social classes. Don’t compare hutu and tutsi with black and bazungu. Tutsi and hutu are the same people, no difference as you see ethnicity in other countries. Finally, it is not an offense, if you enjoy being hutu or tutsi than rwandan, do so in your room, but keep in mind that being Rwandan is more honorable! Isn’t the same in America? Best regards!

  3. Well, i suggest you wait until you fully understand Rwanda and Rwandans, because thats when you will pen an informed analysis of the Rwandan situation, because its more complex than just “Tutsi” and “Hutu”. After fully understanding, you will realise that “Hutu” and “Tutsi” are not races, as you now compare them to “Black” and “White”. You will also know that these terms are used openly, the policy only insists that no one should used them against the other. That people feel shy to use them is not a question of policy, its because these terms were used negatively for such a long time – being “Tutsi” was considered evil, and being “Hutu” a privilege. A “Hutu’ killing a “Tutsi” was therefore no sin, and this ideology culminated into the 1994 genocide. After the genocide, when you say “come here you ‘Hutu'” all heads will turn, not because people think its an offense, but because this resonates as if you are calling “come here, you killer” and people feel shy to be called that. In the same way, when you call out in the same way for a “Tutsi” – heads will turn towards the caller because this will remind people of the old days when “Tutsis” used to be killed, victimised, prejudiced and segregated. The policy is clear, but people would rather keep those tags away forever. But ofcourse during unity and reconciliation campaigns and meetings, these terms are mentioned as part of history

  4. And why pray tell the random photo without caption? What is that supposed to tell us? Are those Hutus or Tutsis? Or just decoration?

    One thing that people often don’t realise is that the line “dividing” Hutus and Tutsis, who have intermarried for years, is so superficial and so blurry that identification cards were need to physically set them apart. That is how people got killed at roadblocks.

    Also, as a Rwandan, I couldn’t less what I was or what “group” my children’s friends belong to – I just want to make a decent living and I want my family to be happy, and my country to be at piece.

    Anything else, including contrived attempts at establishing “identity” especially by badly informed non-Rwandans is nothing but psychological mumbo-jumbo that I have no time for.

    • 1: The photo is linked to a story that tells you more about it. It was inserted by the editor, not the author. Mouse over it and click.

      2: There’s a stream of comments here that operates on the assumption that one may only speak about Rwanda once one knows EVERYTHING. However, this series isn’t billed as the definitive guide to everything. It is rather explicitly the diary of a young American woman, a college student, who is LEARNING ABOUT Rwanda as she goes. This series is about learning. In the beginning, she will know less. Along the way she will stumble across important insights. And by the end of her stay she will know a good deal more than she did when she arrived. I don’t understand why this is so hard to grasp.

      If I held some of you folks accountable to the standards you’re insisting on, I’d delete your comments because you clearly don’t know everything there is to know about blogging and until you do you should keep your mouths shut.

      So let’s participate in the journey of discovery as players in the educational process, how about it.

  5. @Samuel Smith, I think you’re a little too much on the defensive. No one here is attacking Hannah. I think most people commenting have noticed that she may be falling for the cookie cutter narrative of what Rwanda, its culture and history mean; thus, we’re doing our part to keep her from this since it is incorrect. In fact this will help her stay informed in her learning process. That’s why blogs have comment sections. So as you say we’re already participating in the educational journey.

    Thanks for the lesson on blogs but telling people to keep their mouth shut on such a tool is counter productive in my humble opinion. Cheers.

    • Mukunzi: I may be a tad defensive, and if so I apologize. I don’t want to overstate the case, but I’ve read all the comments on all the posts and while not everyone is guilty, there are those who seem to be wagging their fingers at Hannah a bit, asking the series to be something it isn’t. (See Umulisa’s comment upthread, which is far less gracious than yours, for instance.) I don’t want to speak for Hannah – she certainly doesn’t need me to do that – but I imagine she’d probably agree completely with the premise that she has plenty to learn. I know I certainly do – I know precious little about the nation and am enjoying living vicariously through her process of discovery.

      That said, I was most certainly not going to delete your comments. I was just using that to draw a comparison. The truth is that we’re grateful to see some Rwandans tuning in. Hannah has some wonderful things to say about the people and the culture and I hope you’ll feel comfortable wading in on other discussions here, as well, not just the Rwanda series. I’m guessing you know about a great deal more than just your own country.

  6. It’s a shame that the dialogue was carried on for so long with machetes instead of words.

    Your explorations are fantastic, Hannah. Thanks for continuing to share them.

  7. Dear Hannah,

    As a Rwandan, I don’t feel at ease using those words.

    When you use those words, you are really on shaky ground because when you try to find where they come from, you’ll see along the way that Colonialists partisans of the (Summa Divisio) used it not on any other motive then their own benefit.

    What makes somebody falling into one category, a second one or the less talked about, the third one?

    I really have no clues, if genetics make you a specific shape, people may assume.

    The point is we lost countless people because of those things.

    Rwanda is building itself on a daily basis, we’re focused with issues that are more urgent.

    That’s our challenge, seeing past those clichés and seeking synergies among ourselves in order to have a better future for the next generation.

    Lol. Gbu. Lukiza

  8. Quote: “I get really frustrated in America when we shy away from calling someone “black” in describing people or in conversation.” “how can you have a reasonable discussion about race relations if you can’t even use the words?”

    I find myself quite surprised that this diary entry speculates that not referring to someone’s skin colour is somehow like avoiding talking about the ‘elephant in the room’, that we all know is there, but nobody dares mention. How many times a day is it actually necessary, in anyone’s lives, to describe someone by their skin colour/country of origin/etc etc? A human is indeed a human. What help is it to classify someone according to their skin colour? In your everyday life, do you need to treat anyone differently based on what ‘colour’ your eyes see? Maybe the people who say, “I don’t see the color of people’s skin,”really are being truthful when they say they are not considering it. Maybe the first thing they see is a grandmother who needs the cars to slow down so she can cross the road, or a mother with her children, or a businessman or woman, or a young person angry at the world and themselves?

    Proud of the Rwandan people, who work together to take back the brotherhood that was always their right.